Hyphen-Nation: The Great Masquerade

Today’s post marks the last (at least for now) installment of our hyphenation investigation. And what better way to end than with a masquerade ball? (What can I say? I’m a girl.) There are two topics left that often fool people with their fancy disguises: words hiding behind prefixes and verbs posing as nouns. But after reading today’s post, you’ll be able to see through their grammatical glamor to the hyphens (or lack of hyphens) beneath.


Words formed with prefixes are most often closed, meaning *gasp* NO HYPHEN. There are exceptions to this, of course—will the madness never end!—and I’ll call them out for you below. But the often overlooked truth is that, like a face-painted mask, the prefix blends into the word without need of string, or in this case, hyphen.

“What the deuce is a prefix,” you say? Well, I’m glad you asked that question. A prefix is a group of letters with a specific meaning that is attached to the beginning of certain words to alter their meaning. Letter groupings such as ante, anti, bi, bio, counter, hyper, intra, meta, mid, multi, over, pro, and trans are all considered prefixes. Each of these prefixes when attached to a word change that word’s meaning. For example “antebellum” means before (“ante”) the war (“bellum”).

The trick about hyphenating words with prefixes is knowing when to hyphenate and when to hold back. As mentioned previously, most words with prefixes do not use a hyphen. Examples include: premeditate, perimeter, proponent, disassemble, biohazard, counterintelligence, intramural, and metadata.

Where people get mixed up is when they see things like pre-1950s, anti-gun-toting, mid-Atlantic, pre-exist, re-create, and so forth, and then assume that most words with prefixes should have hyphens when in fact, the opposite is true. Here are the notable exceptions to the no-hyphen-for-prefixes rule.

Pre-1950s: Any prefix abutting a numeral gets a hyphen.
Anti-gun-toting: Any prefix modifying an already hyphenated compound modifier gets a hyphen of its very own.
Mid-Atlantic: Any prefix hooked to the front of a proper noun gets a hyphen.
Pre-exist: Any time a prefix ends with the same letter that its word starts with, add a hyphen.
Re-create: Any time there might be confusion of meaning (as with recreate vs. re-create or coop vs. co-op), add a hyphen.

There are other times you may see a prefix with a hyphen, but for the most part hyphens do not accompany prefixes. There are times when it can be confusing about whether or not a prefix should have a hyphen. I run into this issue frequently during my day job, especially with technical jargon such as “prehospital.” If this happens to you and you really can’t decide if “antidepressant” should have a hyphen or not, check your number-one resource for all things hyphen—the dictionary.

Verbs Posing as Nouns

Every now and again, a verb phrase will try to pose as a noun. There is nothing wrong with pretending to be something you’re not for a while (I sometimes pretend I’m an author, for example). Just make sure that hyphens are put in the appropriate places to give the reader context for the shift.

Allow me to submit a few examples.

“When Cassidy arrives at the ball, the first thing she does is size up the scene.”

The words “size up” in that sentence constitute a verb phrase—two or more words acting as a verb. When you see a verb phrase acting as a verb, hyphens do not enter the picture. Leave a nice little space and all will be well.

But look what happens when that verb phrase decides to dress up in noun clothing.

“She always does a size-up of a potential dance partner before committing herself to a waltz.”

In this case, a hyphen is necessary to indicate to the reader that “size-up” is a specific term, and that the “up” belongs with the “size.”

But I’ll bet you don’t actually use “size up” that much in your everyday vocabulary. So let’s transfer this concept to a verb phrase that unfortunately gets a lot of abuse: “follow up.”

When you’re going to “follow up” with someone, use a space rather than a hyphen. But when you agree to contact someone for a “follow-up,” you need a hyphen.

The best shortcut I can think of for remembering this rule is if there is an “a” or a “the” in front of it, you’ll need a hyphen. If there is not, odds are you should drop the hyphen.The same rule applies to “set up/set-up,” “take down/take-down,” “line up/line-up,” and so on.

Hyphen Hiccups?

So now that you all are hyphen experts, I expect you to go forth and make the Interwebs a safer place for compound modifiers, prefixes, verb phrases, and series compounds. Only you can prevent hyphen abuse! But I’d also like to extend the open invitation to all of you that if you ever run into a situation where you just can’t figure out whether or not you need a hyphen, post a comment here and I’ll find the answer for you. Good luck, and happy hyphenating!

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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